The conflict between freedom and efficiency

The conflict between freedom and efficiency

In an editorial about the suggestion that ID cards would be introduced for UK subjects. the Economist of July 6 2002 puts the issue starkly (but accurately):

“The reason the government is computerising all this information is not because it is bent on attacking personal freedoms, but because it wants to make its systems work more efficiently. This is something every taxpayer also wants….

Yet there is a trade-off between efficiency and liberty. An inefficient state can never repress its people as effectively as an efficient one. What, then, is the citizen supposed to hope for? A government with effective, and therefore potentially dangerous, machinery, or government that doesn’t work very well?”

This is a great statement of the problem. But the paper then loses it in the next para.

“The only way of reconciling efficiency with liberty is to balance the government’s new powers with new rights. Let the databases grow. Let the computers talk to each other. Let the ID cards be issued. But give citizens the right to see any informtion the state holds about them.”

What a cop-out. Fancy imagining that a state which is acquiring this kind of surveillance power would give people access to what it knows about them. And even if it would, what difference would that make? The Economist could do better than that if it really tried.